pithy debris

July 27th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

“The first step in developing a solid waste management plan is to first characterize the waste stream you are dealing with.”
~Me, to every urban planning student, ever

If you were ever a student of mine, it is 99.9% possible that you received the above pearl of wisdom live, between the magical hours of 6-10 pm, at Pratt Institute (#HigginsHallNorth).   It was just the type of pithy remark that could pivot a lively discussion on dog waste composting into the pie charts I keep handy on waste taxonomy.
Plastic marine debris is what bobs along beside me all day long.  Our present anchorage is in the Eastern Lemmon Cays of Guna Yala, a place without curbside recycling. Or curbs. 

In my field of vision are about a dozen other boats, and about a half dozen Guna islands, each with a family or two on it.  Of the boats, I would say about half are Panamanian, and half are from elsewhere in the Americas or Europe.  The local industries are: fishing from dugout canoes, coconut farming, mola making, and selling all of the above to the people on the boats. A few of the islands have makeshift bars where one can snorkel with a lukewarm can of Balboa and eat almuerzo at a picnic table while immersed in a sizzling reggeton mix.  A class of skiff called a panga will ferry daytrippers from the mainland, bring produce or other staples from the city, and return within the day.
As one does, I mention marine plastic in conversation with anybody I talk to – So, how about that plastic, huh? 

We heard one of the islands’ residents referred to as banditos (bad hombres!!!) because they were spotted dumping garbage from their little island bar in open water nearby.  Escándalo!
We boat people wince while we fork over some bucks for our garbage go off on the pangas to shore, where – fingers crossed(!) – it will be burned on land.  I live in fear that anything of ours will resurface and implicate us. Does that eggshell look familiar? 
I can only assume we do better than most of the other boats by being penny pinchers. The cheapest and least convenient way to provision (our specialty) tends toward less packaging and non-disposable containers.  I.e. I have started making cloth bags for all things, as in, “Oh what a lovely watermelon, I shall make you a bag.”
The Gunas rake through their beach litter each day, tidying up the edges, and inspecting for anything useful – animal, vegetable or mineral.  On the island closest to us, F saw the mother-in-law score a plastic emergency whistle out of the surf and immediately start blowing it at the son-in-law with a toothy grin. If an item is deemed un-useful, however, it just get chucked back.  
An(other) Italian named F from a neighboring boat began a one-man plastic picking party, and over the course of three days amassed enough for a roiling bonfire that made my throat sting well into the evening.

Marine debris is also very dependent on weather.  We are still within sight of the mainland, which slopes steeply into mountainous jungle. Heavy and frequent rains send downed trees and any sort of jungle debris  – including anthropogenic litter –  out our way. 
Now here comes the gut punch, in the form of a quote from Scripps marine ecologist Paul Dayton, via my current favorite book, Mapping the Deep by Robert Kunzig, “…we have already changed the ocean; it is no longer untouched wilderness. The damage is so pervasive, that it may be impossible ever to know or reconstruct the ecosystem. In fact, each succeeding generation of biologists has markedly different expectations of what is natural, because they study increasingly altered systems that bear less and less resemblance to the former, preexploitation versions. This loss of perspective is accompanied by fewer direct human experiences (or even memories) of once undisturbed systems.” Tl;dr There is no Contiki experience anymore, and the days of plankton soup are over.

This dog-eared page is my everything right now.  Direct human experience.  What is natural? That and our neighbor wailing on that whistle to the delight of her daughter.

Guna morning

July 15th, 2017 § 2 comments § permalink

This morning we woke up to the sounds of singing in a language we don’t understand. A female voice came wafting our way from Wichubwala, one of the hundreds of tiny islands that make up Guna Yala. 

When we arrived at our anchorage late last night, our arrival was the talk of the town.  First there were flashlights on us, then whistles and calls, busy talk in the Guna language, and finally shouts our way – HOLA!!! – in Spanish.  Our electric engine typically affords us the dignity of ninja stealth when we limp into anchorage late, but not here.

Today we start a honeymoon of sorts.  This isn’t a vacation, but certainly a new chapter.  For the past six years we have pushed forward, and today we begin forming our days differently.  For the first time in a long time, we woke up wondering what to do.

A sleepy look out the porthole reveals no fewer than four Guna cauycos paddling along in any direction.  With the singing and now the sounds of kids splashing around nearby, how will our days here unfurl?

seed stars

April 6th, 2017 § 4 comments § permalink

This is a story I have been chewing on for a long time. It was a hard one to start telling until something happened recently that “hit the extrude button” (alluding here to my Ron Popeil Pasta Maker Theory on Project Development, to be explained at another time, or in person).
betaThe thing that happened was that I came over to Susan B’s house in Brunswick, GA, a house we used to share with her when we lived here during the 2nd Annual Refit of SY Tranquility. We recently needed a break from dust and fumes associated with the 3rd Annual Refit, and so have been slothing about upon her many fine couches.

Upon arriving at the house, I heard a great commotion. South African Sam, a large neighbor and well-known Brunswickian, was out back with Junior (his landscaping associate), laying low the wild back acre of Susan’s House. I am speaking here of the yard that launched many a hashtag during our stay, not the least of which was #yardlife.

Immediately I thought, “Noooooooo! Not my collards!!!!!”
zinniasYou see, several years ago, I had cleared, weeded, and planted a small area of the back acre with an array of seeds in that I had transported from storage in NYC. The one plant that had actually done more than sprout and whither in the hot sun and sandy soil of coastal GA was The Little Collard that Could, a compact but upright collard plant that never showed more than ten leaves, never went to seed, and never died. Any time we visited the house, I checked on the plant. And even as the rest of the garden rewilded, there she stood, barely discernable by the ring of oyster shells that marked her location.

Now how does a single collard seed end up traveling from NYC of all places to find its day in the sun in Susan B’s back yard?
gooseberryFor many years I worked as a gardening consultant for NYC’s Housing Authority. The city would provide me with a pile of expired seeds each spring, and I would circulate myself through several housing development community centers (mainly in BK and the LES) where I would drum up a group of gardeners to go make some garden magic.

This job was great and impossible. It was great because I was the sort of direct action that converts my training into purpose. My role was as a facilitator and problem solver on behalf of a group of residents, while together we would reclaim some fallow urban space for their self-directed use. Outcomes of this work were, of course, all the environmental benefits of gardening. But also the gardens created a new social space, unlike any other on public housing grounds, and the gardeners filled it with their own conversations.
ingersoll_visitI say this job was also impossible because the reality of institutional living would often come crashing in. No amount of garden magic can ward that off. We could arrive at the garden any day to find it suddenly mowed flat with all the grass. Or maybe the community center would generously offer me all its tools – 6 tall shovels – but my gardeners at that site would be a group of thirty 7 year-olds, and our time would be after snack hour, when they were super jacked on plastic-wrapped sugar cakes.

Among my conventional gardening lessons I grew to include such improvised topics as “First Aid for Plants”, “Tools Can Be Very Dangerous Weapons”, and “Rock Scavenger Hunt”.

On what would be my final gardening job in housing, I worked with a group of older women, many over 80. My role in this group was often to be the literal extension of their bodies. “The Ladies”, as the core group came to be known, brought with them many gardening skills from their rural youth, but it was often up to me to bend, carry, and dig. They shared with me their various and interconnected tales, many coming from the rural South during segregation to raise their young families in NYC, in what was then brand new “towers in the park”. Many of their kids, who would be older than me now, had moved out from public housing, out of the neighborhood, and out of the city entirely.
ingersoll_weedingSo my job as a body extender became also one as a generation-bridge. Even though The Ladies found local kids to be loud, unruly, and an overall threat to the ordered beauty of the garden (they were), they did appreciate that I held periodic activities with them in the garden. After awhile, I saw that The Ladies tended to arrive around their respective garden plots at approximately the same time as the kids’ activities. Whether this was a defensive position or not mattered little, the garden magic was working.

I could go on a lot here, as any time I open one memory from this time, a swarm of them rush in. It might be why I haven’t written about the collard plant yet?
ingersoll_ladiesI’ll rush through the ending, for hopefully dramatic effect. The few left over seeds I had from that job were long expired. The collards in question were stamped for 2007. It went into my seed collection, along with wild milkweed from the park, pumpkins from the compost pile, that sort of thing. When I packed up my apartment, the cache went into a storage space, and ultimately into a ziplock bag with a little silica packet and onto the boat. The seeds traveled with us down south, on our harrowing first voyage after the 1st Annual Refit.

Smash cut to… “Noooooooo! Not my collards!!!!!” Its as if cosmic destiny applies to all creatures big and small. Whether it was going to be a NYCHA grounds person or South African Sam behind the wheel, that collard was destined to be decapitated by a lawn mower. Just when it was beginning to blend in back there, get comfortable. I kept checking on the plant, in the hopes of collecting the seeds should she ever send any up. Be the generational bridge.

So, farmy friends, any tips on rooting a collard stem?

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